Ropemakers Company


Newcastle Upon Tyne

The Ropemakers company of Newcastle Upon Tyne

The use of ropes for hunting, pulling, fastening, attaching, carrying, lifting, and climbing dates back to prehistoric times. It is likely that the earliest “ropes” were naturally occurring lengths of plant fiber, such as vines, followed soon by the first attempts at twisting and braiding these strands together to form the first proper ropes in the modern sense of the word. Impressions of cordage found on fired clay provide evidence of string and rope-making technology in Europe dating back 28,000 years. Fossilized fragments of “probably two-ply laid rope of about 7 mm diameter” were found in one of the caves at Lascaux, dating to approximately 15,000 BC.

The ancient Egyptians were probably the first civilization to develop special tools to make rope. Egyptian rope dates back to 4000 to 3500 B.C. and was generally made of water reed fibers. Other rope in antiquity was made from the fibers of date palms, flax, grass, papyrus, leather, or animal hair. The use of such ropes pulled by thousands of workers allowed the Egyptians to move the heavy stones required to build their monuments. Starting from approximately 2800 B.C., rope made of hemp fibers was in use in China. Rope and the craft of rope making spread throughout Asia, India, and Europe over the next several thousand years.

In the Middle Ages (from the thirteenth century to the eighteenth century), from the British Isles to Italy, ropes were constructed in so-called rope walks, very long buildings where strands the full length of the rope were spread out and then laid up or twisted together to form the rope. The cable length was thus set by the length of the available rope walk. This is related to the unit of length termed cable length. This allowed for long ropes of up to 300 yards long or longer to be made. These long ropes were necessary in shipping as short ropes would require splicing to make them long enough to use for sheets and halyards. The strongest form of splicing is the short splice, which doubles the diameter of the rope at the area of the splice, which would cause problems in running the line through pulleys. Any splices narrow enough to maintain smooth running would be unable to support the required weight.

Leonardo de Vinci drew sketches of a concept for a ropemaking machine, but just like many other of his inventions, it was never built. Nevertheless, remarkable feats of construction were accomplished without advanced technology: In 1586, Domenico Fontana erected the 327 ton obelisk on Rome’s Saint Peter’s Square with a concerted effort of 900 men, 75 horses, and countless pulleys and meters of rope. By the late 1700s several working machines had been built and patented.

Some rope continues to be made from natural fibers such as coir and sisal, despite the dominance of synthetic fibers such as nylon and polypropylene which have become popular since the 1950s.

Ropemakers in Newcastle

The ordinary of this society, dated April 14, 1648, citing one of more ancient date, made them a fellowship, with perpetual succession, to meet on the 6th of June every year, and choose two wardens, who, with the fellowship, should make bye-laws, sue and be sued, & c. in the courts of Newcastle; ordered that they should not be molested by the company of Coopers, Pulley-makers, and Turners; that no brother should set an alien to work; that they should take apprentices only once in four years, but put their own children to the business, at their pleasure; and further enjoined that they should not impose upon the public by excessive prices. January 30, 1695, there is an order in the books of this fraternity, that every brother should pay a fine of 6s. 8d. for every hundred weight of hemp unsound, “for rope yarn for either ship, keel, water-gins, cole-pitts, or lead-mines.”

In 1697, the common council of Newcastle, granted to this society part of the room at the west end of the Correction house, in the Manors, formerly the hall of the Coopers, for a meeting-house. Their present hall is Austin Tower, near the south-east corner of the new gaol; but they generally hold their meetings at a tavern.

Most probable date of Incorporation: 1648

Senior Steward

H. D. Wilson 
18 Ripley Drive 
Barnes Park 
NE23 7XA